Diverse Conversations: Navigating the Academy - Higher Education
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Diverse Conversations: Navigating the Academy

by Matthew Lynch

Meghan Harte WeyantFor young scholars at the undergraduate, and graduate levels, it’s sometimes difficult to learn how “navigate the academy” ― learning to take advantage of resources and making the right decisions. You know, figuring it out.

I recently reviewed this issue with Meghan Harte Weyant, executive director of student success at Rollins College, and talked about some of the strategies that young scholars can use, some of the resources they can use, to start navigating effectively as early as possible in their academic careers.

Q: Students really do have a hard time navigating the academy, as we call it. Why do you think that is?

A: Because it’s confusing. Colleges and universities are unlike primary and secondary school in a number of ways. There are a lot of options in college from navigating systems like financial aid and housing to choosing course offerings and majors. On top of this, students are typically experiencing it all the first time in their life. Because of this, we’ve found that for some students, support systems may be unclear … the path to graduation may be unclear … and for others their ultimate goal may even be unclear.

Also, a certain amount of amnesia sets in for those of us who have been through the academy or in our roles for a number of years. We forget how confusing it can be for our students. For example, students often have a hard time deciphering what their immediate priorities should be once they enter the academy, and they have an even harder time determining when and where to get help in executing those priorities.

Q: Learning to navigate the system is actually challenging, even for those students that are generally aware of the benefits. Would you say there are specific barriers that impede student success in this area?

A: Yes, I think the road map to graduation is often unclear. I also think we often don’t do the best job of making students aware of how social, financial, health and wellness, and other factors outside of the academic can strongly influence academic success.

Q: In your experience, what are some of the best ways to, first, raise awareness about this process of actually navigating the academy ― just helping students to be aware that this is actually something they can do?

A: I think we need to find ways to actively coach students through the process. Navigating the academy is a difficult process, and it’s certainly not intuitive. We need to find ways to move into a coaching mentality as it relates to succeeding in college.

We often use the word advising, and I think it’s the wrong word because in order to successfully navigate, the academy students need more than just a person to offer academic advice or counsel. In some ways the concept of advising is a bit too transactional depending on student relationships with her/his advisor. The concept of coaching gets us headed a bit more in the right direction. This is strategically different than mentorship within a field of study (which is how we view academic advising in the liberal arts ethos). It is a focus on training, educating and scaffolding students through the educational process. This is imperative because it is often the process and not the academic content that trips our students up and prevents them from finishing.

Q: Assuming awareness is not the issue, but rather, accessibility, what strategies have you found particularly useful to help students actually go about navigating the academy, getting comfortable with the institutional culture and making themselves a part of it ― after they are aware that this is an option for them?

A: I think for a number of years we have been clinging to this idea that students should be responsible adults who are acting outside of the influence and control of their families, and while that is a nice idea in theory, it’s just not reality. Students are bringing their families to college, and when we fail to embrace families we lose a great deal of ability to enculturate students. I say this because I think we are beginning to realize that when students need help, often times their families are the first to know. Creating support structures and then working with families to make sure they have knowledge of and access to support structures will be a critical step.

Q: Why, would you say, is this issue of helping students to navigate the academy so important for institutions? What do institutions benefit from having students that are aware of how their higher education institution operates on this level?

A: If students can’t navigate an institution, retention and graduation becomes an issue and institutions fail.

There are really two answers to this question.

The first one is centered on a moral/ethical imperative. Institutions should be asking and answering this question because they are deeply committed to students succeeding given their missions. Institutions are making promises and collecting tuition, and as a result, they should be providing a clear and consistent path for students to achieve their academic goals.

The second answer is more about the business side of higher education. It hurts institutions financially and lowers retention and graduation rates (national measures of institutional success) when we lose students for institutional reasons. Beyond the moral/ethical imperative, institutions should be doing everything they can to keep the student they recruit and enroll at an institution. That just makes the most financial sense.

Q: Finally, what strategies have you used at Rollins College specifically to make this process easier for students and to help faculty and administrators support students in this area?

A: We are currently in the process of reviewing our own institutional gaps in order to better serve students. Campuswide, we are looking at Career and Life Planning, Academic Advising, and Enrollment Management initiatives. As part of this work, we are creating deeper partnerships with faculty and campus colleagues to create seamless experiences for our students. Specifically, in Student Affairs we have re-envisioned stronger functional alignments and partnerships focused on enhancing the care, community and career aspects of student life.

This concludes my interview with Meghan Harte Weyant. Thank you again for participating.

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a department chair and an associate professor of education at Langston University. He has focused his career on researching topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment.

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